About Backward Course Design

What is Backward Design? 

In Understanding by Design (1998), Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe their process for planning curriculum, assessment, and instruction as "backward" for two main reasons. The design is "backward" because you "plan with the end in mind" rather than taking off from a starting point and seeing how far you can go. It is also "backward" because conventional course planning begins with a course title, a discipline-based description, a textbook, and some activities you want to do. Hopefully, we arrive at a good endpoint where learning has happened.

Nothing about conventional, "forward" course design guarantees that the content, activities, and instruction will lead to desired learning outcomes. In contrast, Backward Design begins by clearly articulating the learning outcomes and goals you want your students to achieve, then traces the pathway they must take to achieve them. Everything in the course is intentionally designed to support learning. 

Why Use Backward Design?

Backward design provides a framework for developing student-centered courses that ensure learning of core concepts and skills needed within their programs and degrees. The process guides instructors to articulate exactly what students should be able to do as a result of completing the course and to identify the best ways to measure how well students achieved the goals and how to help them get there. Course design becomes more of a journey using a map to a destination than a broad "coverage" of course content with no clear end in mind.    

Course Design Considerations

In backward design, your whole course is built on the foundation of the student learning outcomes you want to achieve by the end of the course. Right Click on the image to the right and open in a new tab, then download or print as a quick course design guide.  

Design for Learning from the bottom up: Learning Outcomes, Learning Assessments, Scaffolded Experiences, Modes of Delivery, Equity by Design, Success Measures. full text provided on the page.

Step One: Learning Outcomes

What are the driving questions this course is attempting to answer? What will students remember, describe, understand, classify, apply, solve, implement, analyze, compare, evaluate, justify, synthesize, create, or design by the end of the course? How does this course relate to and support learning outcomes for general education, the program, or Spartan Ready career competencies? 

Step Two: Learning Assessments

What types of activities, products, or actions will students do to demonstrate success in reaching learning outcomes? What specific measures of success will be part of the assessment rubrics to show students which skills are emerging, developing, secure, or mastered? How will you balance high stakes (worth 20% of the grade or more) and low stakes opportunities for feedback to help students achieve mastery? 

Step Three: Scaffolded Experiences

What experiences do students need to build skills and practice for success in larger learning assessments? What foundational knowledge or skills are necessary to build on or redirect students' prior knowledge and experience to achieve the learning outcomes for the course? How can you use expert knowledge to teach novices to think like an expert? What early experiences would allow students to test their knowledge and skills, see small successes, and develop academic resilience and a growth mindset? 

Step Four: Modes of Delivery

Are there any physical or digital structures that are part of the learning experience? Is face-to-face time with students and instructors used for meaningful interaction? Do technology-based solutions help deliver or reinforce content prior to or in addition to face-to-face time? Is content delivered in multimodal ways (video, text, activities, etc.) to reach a range of learners? Is there time for the hands-on, student-centered work that is especially important to adult learners and non-traditional students? 

Step Five: Equity by Design

Are there any structural, systemic, or institutional barriers that are standing in the way of success? How does the price of textbooks impact student success? Is there an Open Education Resources (OER) solution that might meet your needs just as well? What about deadlines, grade distribution, assignment formats? Are inclusion and access at the center of course design? 

Step Six: Success Measures

What types of data about student success have you observed through formative and summative learning assessments? What other measures of student experience can you observe? What trends or phenomena do you see? How can you learn from these patterns of success to improve your course design and delivery next time?

Tools for Implementing Backward Design

Backward Design is built on the foundation of clear student learning outcomes. Bloom's Taxonomy is the most valuable tool, but learning outcomes guides from disciplinary associations and accrediting bodies can also help you connect your course learning outcomes to the broader picture of the kinds of graduates we wish to send out into the world. 

Use the outcomes, assessments, and course module (or course unit) design map to help guide you through the Backward Design process, especially in online and hybrid courses.